Letters to the Editor

Wendell Berry’s letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books continues to strike a nerve.

The Editors June 9, 2023

From Jim Hightower’s Lowdown, a Substack publication

Wendell Berry is a national treasure. Indeed, I would propose that he be declared one of America’s Most Precious Natural Resourcesbut we’ve seen how profiteering corporations and their politicians strip-mine, clearcut, frack, extract, and carelessly contaminate these precious treasures, so I wouldn’t want to endanger him. The best homage we could pay to Berryand the best favor we could do for ourselves and our countryis simply to read and spread every word of dirt-level common sense that this 88-year-old Kentucky farmer/essayist/poet/Little-d democrat writes.

I’ve known, worked with, and enjoyed Wendell for years. His language and demeanor are at once soft, fierce, and inspiring, filled with a spirt of hope and perseverance that has sustained his lifetime of striving

Thanks and congratulations to Barn Raiser for picking up and publishing Wendell Berry’s rejected letter to The New York Review of Books.

The rejection does not surprise me. A decades-long subscriber to NYRB, I finally canceled my subscription a few years back. That kind of urban liberal myopia described by Berry played out here in Montana in two recent elections when the monumentally misconceived “defund the police” slogan was used to bludgeon Montana Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. That, along with television images of our neighbor cities of Portland and Seattle descending into chaos at the hands of activists from both ends of the political spectrum, resulted in the most lopsided, far-right domination of our state government in Montana history.

What a contrast to my memories of having moved from the minority leader’s to the speaker’s office in the Montana House of Representatives back in the 1980’s when my party put forward the kind of constructive, rural-friendly policies that Wendell Berry continues to advocate. I’m not giving up, as I hope I demonstrated in Citizens Uniting, and I’m glad to see that Wendell isn’t, either.

Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula (1990-96) and speaker of the Montana House of Representatives (1983-84), Missoula, Montana

The great Wendell Berry demands more curiosity, empathy, and rigor of Washington journalist Alexander Burns when he complains of Burns’ article, which calls for reform of the U.S. Senate:

There is no interest in remedies for the bad ecological and human effects of mining, or in a farm bill that would make agriculture less destructive of land and people, or in ways to preserve the ecological integrity of our forests, or in ways to prevent the corporate destruction of the local economies necessary to support local communities—to name only a few rural needs.

But why is this Burns’ responsibility? Why aren’t Kentucky’s powerful Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul interested in such burning questions? And, if so uninterested, what right do they have to represent Berry or any other Kentuckian in the Senate? Without holding them to account, don’t we feed their power and obscure responsibility for the rural crisis Berry so eloquently describes?

Daniel Pearlstein, New York, New York

Iagree with much of what Wendell Berry says in his letter that; the neglect of rural concerns by the political establishment (both Republicans and Democrats, which he neglects to point out), the need for addressing environmental and agricultural concerns, and the demonization of the rural population by some who live and work in metropolitan areas. But framing it in the tired concept of a “liberal elite” encased in a bubble that keeps them from understanding rural problems undercuts his more valid points.

I’m from “da region” of Chicago and Gary, but have lived most of my life in the small two-city complex of Lafayette and West Lafayette, Indiana, and most of that in the county rather than the cities. I spent half of my working life working in factories and half as a computer technician and system administrator, and my highest educational attainment is a high school diploma. My wife of over 50 years lived her childhood in a log home (really!) on a dairy farm in southern Indiana, probably not too dissimilar from Berry’s locale. So we have our feet in both worlds.

My issue with Berry’s letter is his tendency to promote a Jeffersonian ideal of the agrarian rural culture as the repository of virtue for the United States that some fantasy of a liberal elite is totally unaware of. Those liberals and the progressives in the coastal cities east and west are not entirely products of metropolitan descent; many are refugees from the rural areas of many states. They moved to the cities for many reasons, among them the limited, parochial and highly conservative bubble that dominates the United States today. Rural areas are vital to our country; so are cities. While cities are not paragons of virtue either–racism and sexism are built into society across the United States–they are also a place where other cultures are at least visible on a daily basis, and a place where minority groups can often get some voice in political affairs.

My three children all fled Indiana as soon as they came of age for cities on the west coast, taking the very left of center views they picked up (and improved on) from us; they were harassed while living here (they attended rural schools because we live outside city limits).

Finally, I take issue with one of Berry’s points: his support of the outsized weight given to rural areas by the constitution. It is this, in fact, by the ways it has been manipulated by conservatives of both parties–currently mainly by Republicans of the far right–that has exacerbated many of the problems that Berry identifies as plaguing those same areas. What has the far right currently controlling most rural states done for them? It hasn’t neglected them, just stabbed them in the back. Liberals (bless their little hearts) have not done much for them, but are marginally better. Progressives and the further left haven’t done much either, because we don’t have any political say at all–especially not in Indiana, or Kentucky for that matter.

Eric Thiel, West Lafayette, Indiana

There is a vast distance between the rural life that Wendell Berry tries to raise up and the understanding and experience of city dwellers, especially affluent ones.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead is a novel that helps to bring understanding to those of us who don’t know where to start. I am assisted in relating because I read David Copperfield recently enough to remember the story and the characters; Kingsolver is very clever in creating people who are, in some way, modeled on Aunt Betsy Trotwood, or Tommy Traddles, or Steerforth, etc. But this is all within a rural culture where kids get nicotine sickness from picking cotton, where some of the good guys are fighting against oxycontin, and some of them are winning that fight, and some are not. And that’s not all they are fighting against–decades and centuries of economic trashing from the powers that be, a horrible foster care system, too few ways of building self-respect. It’s a beautiful book. I recommend it highly.

Neva Goodwin, Ecological Health Network, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I am a liberal who lives in a rural town, in a small, reddish-purplish state. Berry’s attempts to blame the “liberal media and urban elites” for all of rural America’s problems is absurd. He claims, of us liberals:

There is no interest in remedies for the bad ecological and human effects of mining, or in a farm bill that would make agriculture less destructive of land and people, or in ways to preserve the ecological integrity of our forests, or in ways to prevent the corporate destruction of the local economies necessary to support local communities—to name only a few rural needs.

To which I say bullpucky. Here in New England we liberals (rural and urban) are rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, while growing solar and windpower. We are growing (sic) the numbers of small farms that rely on regenerative, organic methods to produce local, healthy, environmentally sound food. We despise the Farm Bill, and its giveaways to agribusiness and the ethanol industry. We fight (often successfully) the corporatization of our local economies. We fight for environmental regulation and climate amelioration. In other words, we are fighting to fix all of the things Berry whines are making rural lives miserable.

He should know who is really the cause of rural misery. He lives in Kentucky, a benighted state that elects a bright red slate of Republican politicians who push mining, fossil fuels, big-ag and support mega corporations. If Berry wants to find the source of the woes of rural Kentuckians, he needs to focus on his own state’s Republican politicians, and stop with the same lazy demonizing of liberals that Trump, McConnell and DeSantis trot out to disguise their own destruction of rural lives. I thought Berry was better than this.

John Ranta, Hancock, New Hampshire

My wife and I have been admirers of Wendell Berry since our reading, years ago, of his early book The Unsettling of America. We thought then, and have continued to think, that he is one of the sanest and most encouraging of America’s writers, and I have often described Berry to friends as “a national treasure.” I wholeheartedly agree with Jim Hightower’s use of that phrase. I recently reread a short collection of three of Berry’s essays from the 9/11 era, and they are also full of the sanity and wisdom of his letter published in Barn Raiser. Thanks for getting that letter out in spite of the liberal media’s willingness to ignore it. (I should add that I am a liberal democrat, both big D and little d, and that I too have noticed a clear bias against rural folks creeping into the Democratic Party’s policies and attitudes and have, I’m sorry to admit, sometimes shared some of those attitudes.)

Stephen Guy, Daleville, Indiana

My deepest thanks to you for publishing Berry’s letter and to him for writing it in the first place. I lived on a small farm in northern Idaho for 10 years, fulfilling and then failing to fulfill my Iowa-raised father’s desire to be a farmer. I was an excellent 4-H girl, learning all the homemaker skills and getting many blue ribbons at the Kootenai County Fair. Deep inside, I’m still a farmer’s daughter, even though I’ve earned a Ph.D. and have lived in Seattle, Washington, since 1968.

My political views are leftist, but I, too, have never forgotten my “farm girl” roots, that I know where food comes from and that I milked our cow after school—voluntarily! With family still living in rural Washington and Iowa, I understand as best I can their political differences with my viewpoints. But I vehemently disagree with those so-called “experts” and “urban elites” who flaunt their supposed knowledge about people they’ve never met, whose lives they know little or nothing about, whom they disparage as uneducated—which is often not the case–and who think they know “what’s best” for all of us, rural Americans included, without ever seeking facts and then thinking seriously about those facts. They’ve done none of us any favors. Their disrespect and disregard for people who live in rural U.S.A. is appalling and stunning, too.

Do keep up your good work. I’m with you and glad for Barn Raiser.

Carolyn Wallace, Seattle, Washington

Thank you Mr. Berry (by way of Mr. Hightower at the Hightower Lowdown) for stating in clear and simple terms how us rural Americans are misunderstood and all-too-often dismissed out of hand by “liberal elites”. They should be our ally! Of course BOTH parties are guilty in that same regard. But the chase for corporate and big donor $ draws their focus elsewhere–urban, suburban and exurban densely populated counties. Our election processes have become hyper privatized far removed from effect by the common populace. I would thoroughly enjoy sharing a meal with you and hearing all the stories you could recount of your experiences these past 60 odd years! Keep up the good fight and Take Care.

Bo Baggs, Port Arthur, Texas

Wow. Thank you Jim Hightower for forwarding this Barn Raiser article to this elite progressive! It’s all so true that rural America has been ignored to the anguish of people like me who look to urban jungles to save democracy.

How wrong can we be?!!

Lee Webster

The author makes some good points but lets his fellow rural residents off the hook when it comes to the reasons for the demise of rural culture. No rural farmer was forced to sell his land to a large agribusiness or foreigner who suck dry local water sources to grow alfalfa in giant monoculture farms they then export home. Rural high schools that taught their students the best way forward to a better future was through a college education didn’t have their curriculums devised by “Liberal Urban Elites”. The rise of global telecommunications and the invention of the internet which introduced global culture and exciting urban lifestyle and cheaper, easier shopping alternatives weren’t some devilish scheme to impoverish rural communities and rob them of the their young. Local rural communities resistance to zoning restrictions allowed in megastores like Walmart which decimated local business through their mere presence. Sam Walton hailed from Arkansas, not New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston.

In West Virginia coal mining by mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining have rendered rural areas unsuitable for smallholder farming by buying up huge plots of land, destroying local streams and water sources which force young people away to make a living. Not only that, a changing climate, whether manmade or not, has made smallholder farming in many areas simply unsustainable. Again, not the result of action or bias by liberal urban elites. The nation did not choose to force these changes on rural America; they were unintended consequences and to say otherwise absolves rural communities of their agency in allowing and contributing to them.

Clifford Shatz, Foxboro, Massachusetts

Thank you Wendell for your insight into the truth of urban ignorance about rural life and the social-political dismissal of rural culture by urban oriented leadership and media.

Living in Maine and working in community development with Cooperative Extension over three decades, your article affirms that we have been pretty much “rednecked out” by our biased liberal brothers and sisters in “urbia.”

The intentional plot in the halls of DC to destroy mid-sized family farming was but the first stroke of death for the decline of community in rural America. The collusion to leverage the large scale agribusiness model onto the family farm landscape was heartbreaking for many.

I recall an agricultural conference in 1984 where another county educator and I got into a quiet conversation about concerns about rural farms and forests. His reply stunned me, as he slowly opened up about his biggest, heartfelt concern: “Farmers committing suicide because they reached a point where they had no way forward in the new, dominating agribusiness model.”

Roger Merchant, Forestry and Community Development, UMaine Cooperative Extension (1980-2016), Piscataquis County, Maine

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